TIFF 2020 Wrap-Up

This year, I “attended” the Toronto International Film Festival from the comfort of my bedroom thanks to the near-shutdown of public venues for screenings and my own preference to cocoon during these difficult times.

The end of a festival always has a strange feeling after a week of hanging out in line, chatting with fellow film-lovers, grabbing lunch in favourite restaurants (while not eating or drinking so much I will fall asleep in the next movie). After the last film, the streets are emptier, the cinemas don’t feel like they’re girding for another day, and only the die-hards are still there for a closing night screening.

Walk out onto the street, wait for the streetcar, and ride back into the “real world” with days that don’t revolve around TIFF. This year was different. I gave my computer a rest after many online streams, and wandered into the kitchen to figure out what dinner would be.

Maybe next year we will be back in theatres again. Fingers crossed.

The films here are in order of my personal ratings. If a film is not here, that doesn’t mean it was not good, simply that I did not pick it as part of my schedule. Even the cut-down TIFF had more than one could watch in 10 days unless one were really, really in love with a computer screen.

The TIFF People’s Choice Award this year went to Nomadland, my own personal favourite. Frances McDormand brings us another wonderful characater, Fern, a woman who drifts from job to job among a community of nomadic workers in a version of America far from the classic dreams of city life with a home and a two-car garage. Superb. *****

Sir Anthony Hopkins stars with Olivia Colman in The Father , a tale of family relationships falling apart as his character, also named Anthony, slides into dementia. Without giving away the ending, the story is told from Anthony’s point of view and the audience must gradually shift its understanding of just what the “real” world is as the story unfolds. A tour-de-force of acting with an excellent script and direction from Florian Zeller. ****½

Mira Nair directs a large cast in her six-hour version of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy originally produced for the BBC and coming to Netflix. Andrew Davies, a man with many period piece adaptations to his name, is credited as the screenwriter, but it was clear from the Q&A that his original design was adjusted to suit Nair’s desire to bring the political threads forward. She sees the difficult problems of finding a way to make India work politically in its early days as a parallel to the more humourous challenge of finding a suitable bridal partner. Absolutely delightful throughout. ****½

76 Days follows doctors in a hospital in Wuhan, China during the early outbreak of COVID-19 and their struggles to understand and treat a disease that was totally new. Shot under very difficult conditions, this documentary shows front-line medicine in a harrowing setting not of a war zone, but of a modern hospital.

Although it ends after 76 days of what looked at first like the “wave” of the pandemic, we know this was only the beginning and the celebration at the end was short-lived. ****

David Byrne’s American Utopia directed by Spike Lee. This is a concert film of a pre-covid live performance of David Byrne’s latest show. It is a combination of new works and old standards from Talking Heads , and there is no sense that Byrne is slowing down. This is a film that really demands to be seen theatrically, and I can’t help thinking of HotDocs series This Film Should Be Played Loud which has featured Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense from 1984.

A challenge for any concert, and any concert film, is to keep getting better. Leave the peak for close to the end so that the audience does not feel as if the film should have ended sooner. American Utopia manages that feat effortlessly. When, eventually, this shows up in a real theatre, don’t miss it. ****

The Way I See It directed by Dawn Porter. Pete Souza was a White House photographer under Reagan, and chief photographer under Obama. He has seen a lot, but Souza is also responsible for some iconic photos. This is a documentary based on his work, and a reminder that there were once decent men in the White House in a time that seems very far away. ***½

City Hall Frederick Wiseman has a history of making long films documenting people and places. For City Hall he followed Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh and the people who keep the city running. With a running time of 4:35, it’s a long haul and thanks to the benefits of streaming, an intermission could be inserted any time I wanted.

The documentary shows the breadth of services a city provides and how the Mayor gets involved in everything from basic policy to the perennial round of community meetings and appearances. Walsh is a relatively progressive Mayor, and it was good to see an administration with that sort of leaning when Toronto is so far removed from that type of outlook.

My only complaint is that some segments dwell rather longer than they need to on a topic, especially in the latter part of the film. ***½

MLK/FBI Sam Pollard’s documentary about the relationship between the FBI, its director J. Edgar Hoover, and Martin Luther King covers a lot of territory that those who remember Dr. King’s life will remember, but with the benefit of more historical documentation than was public at the time.

Hoover and the FBI regarded King as an agitator and a threat, an unsurprising pose for a white southerner and a hard-core law-and-order man in an era when political infiltrators were seen hiding in every corner. Hoover tried to discredit King for extra-marital affairs, but failed, and King enjoyed the support of President Johnson, at least until he came out against the Viet Nam War.

Dr. King’s assassination was one of many events of the era that, had they gone differently, could have left us with a different USA today. ***½

The Best is Yet to Come by Wang Jing. This film is based on a true story of a young would-be journalist, Han FuDong, who talked his way into an internship at a major Chinese daily newspaper and soon became involved in major investigative stories. The time is 2003, just after the SARS epidemic.

A major scandal is breaking about falsified health status reports where people with Hepatitis B would get “clean” certificates that were essential to their being able to work and get positions in academic institutions. However, the real story lies in the official censure of these people that had no basis in science, but stigamtized millions in the country.

It is ironic to watch a story that has a thriller, fact-finding motif set in a country that does not now welcome criticism of government policy. Han’s reporting changed government policy, and yet one cannot help wondering whether this would be possible today. ***½

Notturno is Gianfranco Rosi’s look at the lives of people living along the borders of Middle Eastern countries, notably Kurdistan, and their difficulty and challenges in getting from day to day. Rosi shot footage in many places for two years, and then stitched together interweaving tales.

The sad contrast, presented without any comment beyond the images we see, lies between people living in poverty while vast sums go to support security services that protect borders they cannot cross.

Much of the film was shot at night, one element of the title. Another more poetic is the question of whether dawn will ever arrive for people trapped by warring factions and governments. It deserves to be seen theatrically, although I am not sure if it will show up in that format. ***½

Falling written and directed by, and starring Viggo Mortensen. This is another tale of an aging father whose memory of the past leaves much to be desired. Mortensen plays John, a gay adult, whose father Willis cannot stomach his sexuality, but who must put up with his presence because of his declining health. We see both characters in flashbacks to John’s youth and the troubled relationship that existed even then.

Willis, a blisteringly cantankerous man, is played by Lance Henriksen in a role where he really owns the screen even though we as viewers must watch and sit through his outbursts. There is a reconciliation of sorts eventually, but Willis is not going to “go gently” to the end of his life.

A great script and direction from Mortensen on his first outing as a director. This film was made in Toronto and has distribution in Canada and Europe, but not yet in the USA. ***½

The Truffle Hunters by Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw. Where do truffles come from? They are not “farmed” in the traditional sense, but grow secretively on the roots of certain trees and can be found only by trained animals. Who does this work, and what happens to the truffles after they go “to market”?

Dweck and Kershaw, who do not speak Italian (let alone the Piedmontese dialect of the principal characters), spent three years digging into the mysteries of the white truffles of the Alba region in northern Italy. Just getting the trust of the locals was a challenge considering that each of the aging hunters has his own secret patch of ground and dogs to sniff out the prized truffles.

Little surprise that these men who work alone at night (lest anyone find where they are going) are an eccentric bunch, and their lifestyle is far from the style and glitter of modern Italy. The contrast with the cognoscenti who trade in and consume the truffles at astronomical retail prices is stunning.

The industry, such as it is, is threatened by climate change (the truffles will not grow if it is too hot or too dry), and by land clearances for vineyards, although there are attempts to purchase and protect some of the truffle forests.

A kind hearted tale of what may be a vanishing trade. ***½

Enemies of the State Sonia Kennebeck brings us the story of the DeHart family in Indiana, group who hardly seem the stuff of criminal or spy legend.

Matt DeHart, 25, is a hacktivist who has ties to Anonymous and Wikileaks, and claims to be hosting a server where backup copies of very sensitive files are kept. His parents are both retired from sensitive jobs in the US military.

When the police show up one day on a raid claiming Matt is involved with child pornography, this triggers serious contemplation of a move to Canada because the suspicion is that porn allegations are just a setup to justify seizing Matt’s computers.

We follow the story back and forth from both the DeHarts’ point of view and from the police and prosecutors who allege that Matt had been grooming underage contacts online.

The story seems to be going Matt’s way, but not quite. Was he even a hacker at all, or was that just cover for other activities? ***

Gaza Mon Amour by Tarzan and Arab Nasser. The Nassar brothers are Palestinian, and their film is set in their homeland, Gaza. The protagonists are two unlikely characters: Issa is an fisherman, 60 years old, who gets by fishing within the limits set by Isreal; Siham is a tailor, a widow facing the challenge of making dresses for women who have no money to buy them. Issa has a secret fascination for Siham, but not the confidence to start more than a passing friendship.

One night, Issa’s nets pull up a statue of the god Apollo, but it is an antiquity, a state treasure even though an accident has robbed Apollo of an important, prominent part of his anatomy.

This gentle, humourous story follows both the travails of the status (which Issa never gets back) and his budding romance with Siham. A wee gem! ***

Wolfwalkers Directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart give us an animated feature film rooted in Irish lore and set in the 17th century. It is the time of Oliver Cromwell and the domination of Ireland by England for its own economic gain. Wolves are roaming the land outside the walled town of Kilkenney, and Bill Goodfellowe (voiced by Sean Bean), has been dispatched by Cromwell to kill them so that the land can be farmed safely.

His daughter Robin (Honor Kneafsey) is headstrong and wants to assist in her father’s work, but soon discovers there is more to these wolves when she meets Mebh (Eva Whittaker) who was raised by the wolves and is part of their pack.

This is a story about new friendships, but one cannot help thinking of the difficulties between the Irish and English that were centuries in the making. There is also an environmental message in that both the animals and their forest have a place that should not be disturbed.

I wanted to like this film, but it tries to fit too many threads into one story and risks losing its way. But 103 minute animated features do not come along every day, and Wolfwalkers is definitely worth seeing. ***

The New Corporation: The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel by Joel Bakan and Jennifer Abbott. Yes, they’re back, with an updated warning about the power and influence of corporations over government and our daily lives.

These days most companies strive to look socially responsible, to be “green”, but this is all still with the aim of making money and lots of it. Looking like you’re the good guys is just marketing, not real commitment.

Bakan and Abbott track the evolution of corporate/political culture since the originial 2003 film, The Corporation, but they run aground with sections that were clearly added at the last minute thanks to world events. These make the film over-long, and it dwells disproportionately on recent history.

Up until that point, I thought this sequel was an improvement on the original, but then it ran aground. Such are the challenges of trying to be really, really up-to-date. ***

180 Degree Rule by Farnoosh Samadi. Sara and her husband Hamed live a comfortable life in Tehran where she teaches school and he appears to have some unspecified job with the government, but is often going away on “missions”. Hamed wants things done his way, but Sara has an independent streak.

The family is invited to a relative’s wedding, and their child is to be part of the ceremony. Hamed is called to a work duty and forbids Sara from travelling on her own, but she goes anyhow with, eventually disastrous results.

This could easily be a simplistic tale of a domineering, religiously hard-line husband and a wife that got her just deserts, but Samadi’s goal is more complex, to look at the effects of lies between people and the tragedy they can bring. This is planned to be the first film of a trilogy, and in the second story it will be the man whose lies are his undoing. ***

I Care A Lot directed by J Blakeson. This is advertised as a “thriller”, although I really wouldn’t go that far, about the exploitation of seniors by unscrupulous operators of long term care homes. Dianne Wiest plays Jennifer Peterson, an ideal mark, who appears to be well-off but with no relatives. Through legal trickery and the connivance of Peterson’s doctor, the court appoints a guardian Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) who proceeds to strip Jennifer of all assets including her house while making her a prisoner within an LTC home, another branch of the scam.

Wrong choice. Peterson is not who she appears to be, and her Russian Mafia son (Peter Dinklage) is not amused. In this war between thieves, we really want the bad guys to win.

This could be either a nasty thriller or a comedy, but the story just loses its way and turns into almost a parody of a warning against corporate greed. **½

Another Round Director Thomas Winterberg gives us a story about drinking which, it would appear, occurs on a scale in Denmark that would be beyond the pale in North America. Maads Mikkelsen plays Martin, a high school teacher who has seen better days. Starting from a philosophical premise that Danes are born with a blood alcohol level that is 0.05% too low, Martin and his friends embark on a drinking spree that quickly gets out of hand.

What is actually happening here is that the characters have reached a certain age where things don’t work in their lives quite as well as before, and they seek refuge in their own drunken camaraderie.

I was not impressed. **

I saw 35 shorts in total and here are the best among them:

Scars / Cicatrices Alex Anna tells a story partly in live action, partly animated, about her journey to mental health and the role of self-scarring. ****½

Still Processing by Sophy Romvari. A young woman dives into family memories and loss through a box of previously unseen photographs. ****

Black Bodies by Kelly Fyffe-Marshall is a brief dance/drama piece about life and death in today’s racist world. This film won the 2020 Changemaker Award from a group of young film lovers, TIFF’s Next Wave Committee. ****

Point and Line to Plane A film about memory, loss and the touchpoints someone leaves behind by Sofia Bohdanowicz. ****

Novazande / Le Musicien by Reza Riahi tells a story of love, loss and rediscovery in 13th century Persia using cut paper animation. ****

Shooting Star / Comme une comète Ariane Louis-Seize gives us a story of a mother and daughter with an unexpected twist at the end. ****

The Price of Cheap Rent by Amina Sutton and Maya Tanaka. The challenges of finding a good but cheap apartment. ****

Elo / Tie Alexandra Ramires’ gives us an animated view of a strange land where two characters come to support each other. ****